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Pink Floyd's Roger Waters Offers A Seductive Take On A Stravinsky Classic

Jan 2, 2019
Originally published on January 4, 2019 10:11 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Pink Floyd's legendary frontman Roger Waters has made a recording of Stravinsky's "The Soldier's Tale" with a new narration that he adapted. He also performs all the characters. Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROGER WATERS & BRIDGEHAMPTON CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL MUSICIANS' PERFORMANCE OF STRAVINSKY'S "THE SOLDIER'S MARCH")

ROGER WATERS: Down a hot and dusty track comes a sojourn with a pack.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROGER WATERS & BRIDGEHAMPTON CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL MUSICIANS' PERFORMANCE OF STRAVINSKY'S "THE SOLDIER'S MARCH")

WATERS: Ten days' leave he has to spend.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROGER WATERS & BRIDGEHAMPTON CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL MUSICIANS' PERFORMANCE OF STRAVINSKY'S "THE SOLDIER'S MARCH")

WATERS: Will his journey never end?

(SOUNDBITE OF ROGER WATERS & BRIDGEHAMPTON CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL MUSICIANS' PERFORMANCE OF STRAVINSKY'S "THE SOLDIER'S MARCH")

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Igor Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat" - "The Soldier's Tale" - was a small-scale stage work conceived between the time of the Russian Revolution and the end of World War I, when elaborate productions were unthinkable. Stravinsky and his collaborator, the Swiss writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, created an intimate entertainment based on a folk story about the fateful meeting of the devil with a tired soldier trying to get home from the war. The soldier gets talked into trading away his precious fiddle for a book with the devil's secret for making money.

Stravinsky uses only seven musicians in what was his first, real attempt to incorporate jazz or ragtime. It's an irresistible piece, theatrically manageable and musically alive, full of marches, rags, a tango and an off-kilter waltz. Stravinsky soon turned the piece into a suite of music without any story at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROGER WATERS & BRIDGEHAMPTON CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL MUSICIANS' PERFORMANCE OF STRAVINSKY'S "THREE DANCES")

SCHWARTZ: The folk tale is so ripe with contemporary overtones, various writers have adapted the libretto. The first cast consisted of a narrator, two actors and a dancer playing the princess the soldier marries. Jean Cocteau narrated a recording in which Peter Ustinov played the devil. Mime Marcel Marceau once appeared as the devil. The strangest version I know was one rewritten by the avant-garde New York author Kenward Elmslie.

A new adaptation by Pink Floyd's Roger Waters is hardly a radical revision. But with Waters himself narrating the story and reading all of the characters, it's totally seductive. He's an effortless narrator, delivering the proper British English of the storyteller with impeccably good diction, switching to a Cockney dialect for the soldier, a German accent for the devil and a higher-pitched voice for the princess.

And because he's a good musician, his timing in the places where the narrative is woven into the music is just about flawless. His English rendering based on an earlier translation is full of tricky rhythms and witty and mostly understated rhymes. Here's the first meeting of the devil and the soldier.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROGER WATERS & BRIDGEHAMPTON CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL MUSICIANS' PERFORMANCE OF STRAVINSKY'S "THE SOLDIER'S TALE")

WATERS: The devil stops to listen for a while. He's intrigued. He quietly approaches the soldier and touches his arm. The soldier, startled, springs back in alarm. Aye, oh, you gave me a fright. Apologies - excuse me. Could you by any chance be persuaded to give me your fiddle? What? Don't be daft. Why would I - no way. Oh, very well then, I'll buy it. What if I pay? Hey, I don't think so, no. What can I say? This fiddle of mine is just not for sale.

The devil puts down his butterfly net and holds out a book - a book bound in red, somewhat tattered and torn, a book he's been carrying under his arm. I'll give you this book for it. No, I can't bloody read - makes no difference with this book. There's really no need. It's more than a book. It's wealth untold. You've only to open it and - lo and behold, banknotes, bearer bonds and gold. Gold - well, I suppose I could just have a look. Certainly, be my guest. Here, take the book.

SCHWARTZ: When I first heard about this recording, I was suspicious that it was going to be just a gimmick to cash in on Waters' fame. But Waters is surrounded by the terrific musicians of the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival, including Colin Jacobsen, one of the founding members of the popular string quartet Brooklyn Rider, playing the devilishly difficult solo violin part. This is a seriously enjoyable addition to the Stravinsky catalog.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROGER WATERS & BRIDGEHAMPTON CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL MUSICIANS' PERFORMANCE OF STRAVINSKY'S "THE SOLDIER'S TALE")

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the MFA creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His most recent book of poems is called "Little Kisses." He reviewed a new recording of Igor Stravinsky's "The Soldier's Tale," with narration adapted and performed by Roger Waters.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Adam McKay. He wrote and directed the new film "Vice" about Dick Cheney, perhaps the most powerful vice president in American history. It's nominated for six Golden Globes and stars Christian Bale as Cheney. "Vice" combines investigative journalism, speculation and comedy. McKay also made "The Big Short" and "Anchorman" and cofounded Funny or Die. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "THE WAR IN AFGHANISTAN/HIS MAGNUM OPUS")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "THE WAR IN AFGHANISTAN/HIS MAGNUM OPUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.